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Pop quiz: Is the international community passing or failing on educating the poor?

Ethiopian education and gender activist Selamawit Bekele talks in Fremont with Bob Dickerson, left, and Lisa Marchal, right, of the anti-poverty group RESULTS.
Ethiopian education and gender activist Selamawit Bekele talks in Fremont with Bob Dickerson, left, and Lisa Marchal, right, of the anti-poverty group RESULTS.

A young woman and educator from Ethiopia swung through Seattle the other day to deliver a brief lesson:

“We can’t make progress against poverty and inequity anywhere unless we make progress in education,” said Selamawit Adugna Bekele. “Education is the change maker.”

A quick look at Number 2 of the eight Millennium Development Goals, Achieving Universal Primary Education, might give the impression the international community is close to doing just that – getting every kid on the planet into and through primary school. It says we’re at about 90 percent enrollment and that “more kids than ever are attending primary school.”

But that 90 percent represents a fairly small increase from the year 2000, when primary school enrollment worldwide was estimated to be 82 percent.

And enrollment is not education, of course, since just being in a classroom doesn’t automatically produce learning. The World Bank’s statistics on education show that youth literacy has hardly improved – from about 83 percent in 1985-2004 to about 89 percent as of 2010.

UNESCO reported in 2012 that some 250 million children are failing to learn even basic skills like reading and writing while in primary school.

And those are global averages. In poor countries, the statistics are not encouraging. In Africa, according to the Global Partnership for Education, the number of ‘out-of-school’ children is on the rise – the majority of them girls. It’s good to vaccinate kids and dig wells, but several studies have shown that a child born to a woman lacking basic education is twice as likely to die as a child born to an educated mother.

Selamawit Adugna Bekele
Selamawit Adugna Bekele

“It is so fundamental,” said Selamawit (the name she prefers I use). “Did you know that only about two percent of all aid and development funding goes to education?”

No, teacher, I didn’t. (That was also in the UNESCO report cited above.)

Selamawit, 25, become a passionate advocate for improving education in Africa after spending some time teaching in a slum of Addis Ababa. She studied gender issues and computer science and, when she graduated from university, was assigned to go help the poorest of the poor.

It was a transformative experience trying to educate kids who sometimes had no place to sleep the night before, trying to encourage kids whose parents wanted them working to make money rather than sitting in a classroom and trying to help prevent the sexual exploitation of young girls.

“It was very tough for me,” she said. But rather than shrink from this overwhelming situation, Selamawit was instead motivated to become a powerful advocate for the poor, for education and especially for the empowerment of girls and women.

“They are all connected,” she noted. “When people receive a quality education, even a basic one, they are more able to rise out of poverty and less likely to be exploited.”

After working as a young teacher in the slum, Selamawit went on to work at refugee camps, including those serving South Sudan, focusing on empowering young people, protecting vulnerable women and children. She traveled to other African nations to work on these same issues and eventually became appointed to serve at the African Union as a special advocate for young women.

The anti-poverty advocacy organization RESULTS brought her to Seattle as part of Selamawit’s whirlwind tour of the U.S. She is meeting with policymakers, activists, philanthropists and donors to make the case for putting much more money into education – specifically the Global Partnership for Education.

Many people, maybe most, have heard of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which was launched in 2002 to raise billions of dollars to combat these three top killer diseases in poor countries.

Few people, even within the humanitarian community, appear to know much about the Global Partnership for Education (aka GPE) even though it started about the same time and has also raised billions (a few anyway) to get tens of millions more kids in school, train hundreds of thousands of teachers, rehab and improve the equipment in tens of thousands of classrooms, among other things.

Yet the need, said Bob Dickerson with the Seattle RESULTS team, is so much greater.

“A girl in South Sudan has a greater statistical chance of dying in childbirth today than she does at getting an education,” Dickerson said. Everyone agrees that educating and empowering girls is critical to reducing maternal and child deaths, he said, yet much of the aid and development spending goes to addressing the health concerns – the symptoms, as it were, of the problem – rather than to putting sufficient resources into the basic needs of education in poor countries.

In late June, at a GPE replenishment meeting in Belgium, RESULTS and other advocacy organizations hope to see a marked increase in commitments to improve education by governments and donors.

“I have seen what a difference an education can make, in all these many areas of health, economics and personal empowerment,” said Selamawit. “And I’m not sure we will succeed in any of these areas if we don’t dramatically increase our support for education.”


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.